The Hong Kong team departed for Darwin, Australia, with high expectations of making it to the final of the ICC World Cricket League Division Three tournament and thereby gaining promotion into Division Two and the prospect of a tournament in Namibia on November 2007. In the end they didn't meet those expectations, and worse, by finishing fifth out of the eight teams, they were demoted to Division Four. Did they play badly or were they just outclassed by superior opposition?
The 14-man team departed Hong Kong on the evening of 22nd May 2007 under the leadership of new skipper Ilyas Gull, new coach Sameer Dighe and team manager Ravi Nagdev. The bulk of the team travelled to Darwin together, with Rahul Sharma joining the team on 26th May.
Match 1 - Hong Kong v. Italy (Warm-up)
First up, Hong Kong faced the Italians in a warm-up match at Marrara Oval No. 2. While there was nothing riding on this match, it provided a useful workout for the team and perhaps highlighted a few problems that were to plague the Hong Kong throughout the early stages of the tournament. For starters, the bowlers were unable to dominate against a side ranked lower than them in this tournament. The bowlers tended to bowl both sides of the wicket, gifting needless extra runs and making it difficult to set fields. Secondly, the top of the batting order looked fragile. Although Hong Kong scored a one-wicket victory, they looked dead and buried at 123-8 chasing the Italians 217. Only a rear-guard batting effort by Zain Abbas, Ilyas Gull and Nadeem Ahmed saved Hong Kong's blushes. Finally, some poor fielding cost 20+ runs and a couple of dropped catches.
On the plus side, Zain's composed innings showed a maturity beyond his 20-odd years, while Afzaal Haider and Najeeb Amar were the pick of the bowlers, though neither could get any wickets.
Match 2 - Hong Kong v. Uganda (Group B)
Onto the first game that mattered and Hong Kong faced the highly fancied Ugandans at Kahlin Oval. The match start was delayed 15 minutes, as the umpires were not happy with the pitch and outfield markings. Uganda won the toss and elected to bat. Hong Kong got exactly the start they wanted, when Afzaal Haider claimed his first wicket from the fourth ball of the day, with Nasir Hameed pouching a brilliant tumbling catch to his left. Hong Kong appeared to hold the upper hand for the first 35-overs but at that point the Ugandan batsmen took charge. They doubled their score in the last 15 overs as the Hong Kong bowlers and fields tired visibly. Uganda eventually reached 220-5. Haider was the most successful bowler with 2 wickets, while Amar's ten overs conceded only 11 runs. Hong Kong's fielding effort was markedly better than in their first outing against Italy.
Hong Kong's reply got off to a disastrous start when Nasir Hameed was clean bowled from the first delivery he faced, without offering a shot. The gamble to throw Najeeb Amar into the opening position failed and when Rahul Sharma fell cheaply, Hong Kong was on the back foot at 14-3. Mark Eames was looking good but he was needlessly run-out by a team with a reputation as the best fielding side in Africa. Irfan Ahmed hit a lusty 34, including two fours and one six, but he threw his wicket away with a rash shot after looking set. Kruger was also run-out and only some big hitting by the last wicket pairing of Nadeem Ahmed and Afzaal Haider allowed Hong Kong to pass the 100 mark. Hong Kong was all out for 129 off 36.5 overs.
The final winning margin was 91 runs. Had Hong Kong played badly? The batting could certainly have been better but on the day, the Ugandans played better, smarter cricket. Hong Kong's bowling was reasonable for the first 35 overs and the fielding was much improved, but Uganda was clearly the better team. Unsurprisingly, they went on to win the tournament.
Match 3 - Hong Kong v. Cayman Islands (Group B)
Nearly everything seemed to go wrong for Hong Kong in this match. A late departure and a disorinented bus driver meant that the teams arrived barely an hour before the scheduled start. The overnight death of ICC President Percy Sonn had left a subdued feeling amongst the players and the request to have a minute silence before the start also cut into Hong Kong's pre-match preparations.
An unchanged line-up was named for the match and Ilyas Gull won the toss and elected to bat. The two veterans in the team, Rahul Sharma and Mark Eames, with a combined age of 92 years, were thrust into the opening slot but their partnership lasted only one ball with Sharma playing an awkward shot to the first ball of the day, lobbing a simple catch to extra cover. Courtney Kruger was elevated up the order to number three but he lasted barely a dozen balls. Hussain Butt was then bowled not offering a shot. Irfan Ahmed threw his bat at nearly everything that came his way, with his 21 runs including five boundaries. Sadly, his effort was the best for Hong Kong in a dire batting performance that saw Hong Kong register its lowest international score - 67 all out in just 24.5 overs.
A fired up Irfan Ahmed claimed two early wickets for Hong Kong but his aggression was tempered by some wayward deliveries and he leaked nine wides in his four over spell. Mercifully, the end came quickly with Cayman Islands racing to victory in just 57 balls. As someone said about the Caymans' batting before the match, "You ain't going to die wondering..."
No doubt, Hong Kong played poorly in this match. They batted like schoolboys against men - the big Cayman Islands bowlers seemingly striking fear in the Hong Kong batsmen. The only positive to come out of the match for Hong Kong was theirs wasn't the lowest score of the day - that dubious honour going to Tanzania, who were dismissed for 64 by Uganda.
Match 4 - Hong Kong v. Tanzania (Group B)
With their ambitions of playing in the top half of the draw already blown away, a dispirited Hong Kong team took on Tanzania at Tracy Village, one of the top venues in the region. Changes in the Hong Kong saw Mark Kratzmann, making his debut, in for Mark Eames and Khalid Khan replacing the unlucky Zain Abbas.
Hong Kong's third different opening pairing of Kratzmann and Kruger got the side away to a solid, if unspectacular, start. But having negated the new ball, both openers were dismissed by the 12th over and Hong Kong was again on the back foot. Rahul Sharma's measured 43 off 88 balls was the best Hong Kong could offer in another disappointing batting effort that saw the team fail to bat out their 50 overs for the third match in a row, against a bowling attack that could be described, at best, as 'modest'.
Hong Kong's bowling effort seemed to lack the intensity of the previous matches and although Afzaal Haider beat the bat on numerous occasions, they were unable to get an early breakthrough. Once the Tanzanian openers had built a 77-run partnership, simple, no-risk cricket from then on was enough to get them home. Najeeb Amar was the best of the bowlers, claiming 2-16 from his ten overs.
On paper, this was a better effort by Hong Kong, but in hindsight this was probably their worst performance to date. Another disappointing batting performance left the bowlers with too much to do and, on a flat track, they lacked the firepower to manufacture a victory.
Match 5 - Hong Kong v. Italy (Plate Semi-final)
Hong Kong had a chance to redeem themselves when they took on Italy at Marrara Oval No.2 for the first match of the plate competition. Having been given a lecture by Rahul Sharma at the previous night's team meeting, the players appeared to be more buoyed for this match than in their previous outing against Tanzania. Changes to the side saw Zain Abbas back in for Khalid Khan while Skhawat Ali was given his debut in place of Nadeem Ahmed.
From the start, Hong Kong played more positive cricket. Kratzmann and Kruger provided a 49-run opening stand that laid a good foundation. Kruger went on to hit Hong Kong's first individual 50 of the tournament, in an innings that mixed caution with aggression. Irfan Ahmed smoked two fours and two sixes in his 37 run innings but yet again lost his wicket to a poor shot after getting himself set. A middle order slump saw Hong Kong lose its advantage, but a quick-fire unbeaten 36 from Nasir Hameed (the former opener now languishing at number 10) lifted Hong Kong to a respectable total. Although the total could have been better, Hong Kong, at least, had managed to bat through their 50 overs.
Hong Kong's bowling effort was also better and Afzaal Haider used the conditions to good effect. Bowling down the slope and with the blustery wind at his back, he managed to cause all the Italian batsmen trouble and he was unlucky not to claim a wicket. Skipper Ilyas Gull provided the breakthrough needed and he went on the claim 3-37 from his nine overs. Najeeb Amar was again economical; claiming 2-17 from his seven over spell, while Zain Abbas also grabbed two wickets. The end would have come sooner had Nadeem Ahmed, fielding as a substitute, not spilled two chances and Najeeb Amar another.
Hong Kong had finally come to play. This was a much-improved performance, although the batting frailties in the middle order still persisted.
Match 6 - Hong Kong v. Tanzania (5th/6th Play-off)
With the taste of victory now in their mouths, a more confident Hong Kong team faced Tanzania in a return match at Power Park. Nadeem Ahmed returned to the team in place of Skhawat Ali. Overnight, Rahul Sharma had announced his retirement from international cricket and this was to be his swansong.
Winning the toss, Hong Kong had no hesitation in batting. Kratzmann and Kruger were retained at the top of the order and they produced another solid opening partnership worth 47 runs. From there, the rest of the batsmen took over with Rahul Sharma hitting an excellent 85 and Irfan 47, helping Hong Kong to double it's total in the last 15 overs. In a fitting tribute, the Hong Kong players gave a guard of honour to Sharma as he left the field. Hong Kong's 242-6 was their best effort of the tournament and the second highest total posted overall.
With their tails up, the Hong Kong opening attack of Afzaal Haider and Irfan Ahmed knocked the stuffing out of the Tanzanian top order and had them reeling at 37-5 after 14 overs. They never recovered and Nadeem Ahmed mopped up the tail with three wickets, to complete what was otherwise a disappointing tournament for him with the ball. Tanzania was dismissed for just 113 and Hong Kong had earned a deserved 129 run victory.
Hong Kong finally showed that they have what it takes to compete at this level and had they performed like this in the group stages of the tournament, they may well have been competing for a finals spot. In the end, a 5th place finish was probably a fair reflection on how they performed in this tournament compared to the other teams.
Individual Player Performances
Ilyas Gull - Struggled at times to keep the team under control in his first stint as captain. Looked under pressure when batting. Bowled a useful spell against Italy. Pulled things around in the last two matches. 34 runs @ 8.50. 4 wickets @ 22.00.
Najeeb Amar - Bowled well throughout the tournament and kept opposition pegged down. Disappointed with the bat. 29 runs @ 7.25. 5 wickets @ 16.40.
Rahul Sharma - Mixed fortunes with the bat. Finished his career on a high note with a Man of the Match performance against Tanzania. 131 runs @ 26.20.
Hussain Butt - By his own high standards, this was a very disappointing tournament. Bowled out 3 times and LBW once. Failed to take a wicket. 55 runs @ 11.00.
Courtney Kruger - Did reasonably well when elevated to the openers position. Scored an excellent 50 against Italy but tended to flirt with danger outside his off stump. 100 runs @ 20.00.
Irfan Ahmed - Scored most runs and took most wickets for Hong Kong. But having made useful starts in all his innings, he failed to go on to register a half-century. Batted with aggression but needs to have better shot selection. Bowled well at times but tended to be wayward at others (22 wides, 6 no-balls). 153 runs @ 38.25. 6 wickets @ 18.50.
Mark Eames - Not given many opportunities. Run out when looking set against Uganda. 22 runs @ 11.00.
Mark Kratzmann - Solid, if a little slow, at the top of the order. Did what was necessary to take the shine off the new ball but needs to up his strike-rate. 49 runs @ 16.33.
Nasir Hameed - Generally tidy behind the stumps. Took an excellent catch against Uganda but also spilled a couple of other half chances. Appeared to lose confidence with his batting after golden duck against Uganda, but came back well against Italy. 58 runs @ 19.33. 5 catches, 2 stumpings.
Afzaal Haider - Bowled well in spells throughout the tournament and was unlucky to finish with only five wickets. Tended to get hit when bowling at the death. 22 runs @ 5.50. 5 wickets @ 24.00.
Nadeem Ahmed - Disappointed with the ball, despite claiming 3-12 in the final match. Expensive. Provided some fireworks with the bat - but he's in the side as a bowler. Needs to work on his catching. 30 runs @ 10.00. 5 wickets @ 23.60.
Zain Abbas - Modest returns for a very talented cricketer. Failed to produce a big score after hitting 50 in the warm-up match. Bowled quite well at the death and picked up 4 wickets in only 12 overs. 17 runs @ 5.67. 4 wickets @ 13.75.
Khalid Khan - Not given much opportunity. 2 runs @ no average. No wickets.
Skhawat Ali - Not given much opportunity. 1 run @ 1.00.